The way in which Manet painted the Déjeuner—rather than its imagery—is what made it the most groundbreaking and modern. It questioned so many accepted notions about how a painting was supposed to be created. To begin with, look closely at the whole work and it becomes quickly apparent that Manet is unconcerned with creating the illusion of a real-life space, and furthermore, he seems to be in many places trying to purposefully rupture one’s sense of illusion by muddying the relationship between a figure and ground and flattening out parts of the image. Look, for example, at the students’ hand at the center of the picture and how it almost seems to be touching the hand of the woman, who is supposed to be in the background, but looks as if she is floating above him because the background has been flattened into the foreground. Look closer at the background woman: see how the space around her and behind her is sketchily-filled in to make it look flattened as well. Look at the back of the naked woman in the foreground and how the grass actually looks flat against her back, almost meshing with it, rather than behind clearly pictured as behind her.
Manet is also unconcerned with creating the illusion of depth in the figures he paints. In many areas of the work, he uses harsh contrasts to dissolve any sense of three-dimensionality. A commonly-cited example is the contrast between the shod and unshod foot of the man and woman at the center of the painting. Jules-Antoine Castagnary also noticed this effect. He explained at the time: “No detail is in its final, precise and rigorous form…I see fingers without bones and heads without skulls. I see sideburns painted on like two strips of black cloth glued on the cheeks.”
The overall flattening of the image makes one slowly realize that the different scenes present in the work—i.e. the still life at the bottom, the female nude, men in city dress, the bathing figure, a landscape—are actually not entirely connected, but almost separate images pasted (pastiched) into one. The still life in the front seems oddly included; the foursome at the middle don’t seem to be entirely in the woods but floating in front of it; the woman at the rear is almost in her own world. Our eyes and our minds try to bring these images together but the picture remains a combination of various works that cannot be resolved into one. Its coherence consistently falls apart.